After spending nearly half of her life behind bars, 30-year-old sex trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown has been granted clemency by outgoing Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.
Through Brown’s lawyer, Brown thanked Haslam for “giving me a second chance.”
“With God’s help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people. My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been,” she said.
In July 2004, when she was 16, Brown, a runaway from an abusive foster home, was forced into sex work by her boyfriend. He plied her with drugs and repeatedly physically, emotionally, and sexually abused her. According to court testimony, on the day she killed 43-year-old Johnny Mitchell Allen, Brown’s boyfriend had beaten her and forced her out to earn money. Allen picked her up and took her to his home, which was filled with guns. She became fearful for her life and shot Allen out of self-defense. Despite knowing that Brown was abused repeatedly by the adults in her life and sold, as a minor, into sex trafficking, in 2006, she was tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder.
Over the past decade, her case has attracted national attention, highlighting how the justice system fails vulnerable women of color and victims of sex trafficking. In 2011, PBS relayed Brown’s unendingly tragic story in a documentary, renewing attention for her case. Numerous activist organizations have campaigned for her release, earning support from celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna. Yet Brown remained behind bars with little hope that she would ever be released early. In 2018, the Tennessee Board of Parole denied Brown’s request for clemency, and in December, the state Supreme Court ruled that she must serve 51 years before she is eligible for parole. As the Root reported, Black Lives Matter then activists increased the pressure on Haslam, whose term ends in just over a week. In December, Haslam’s office promised to review Brown’s case.
In the 11th hour, thanks in no small part to sustained public pressure, Haslam came through. “Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” Haslam said in a statement on Monday. “Yet, imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life.”
In prison, Brown earned a GED and a college degree from Lipscomb University, maintaing a 4.0 GPA. It’s fucked up, though, that Brown, a minor who was failed by the foster system, by the legal system, and again by the criminal justice system, had to meet expectations of an exemplary inmate and national attention to be set free (and that she was even tried and imprisoned on elevated charges to begin with).
Brown will be released on August 7 and will remain on parole for 10 years with requirements that she gain employment, attends regular counseling sessions, and performs at least 50 hours of community service.